By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Ninety percent of people are throwing away food too soon, said Chris Hoffer, Environmental Programs Manager at Seattle Tilth.
In addition, Seattle Public Utilities’ Waste Prevention and Recycling Program Manager Veronica Fincher said that 40 percent of the food in the United States is wasted. Yet, one in seven households in the country don’t have enough to eat.
“All of the resources that go into the food are wasted as well. More than 5 percent of total energy and 25 percent of freshwater that is used to grow that food is wasted, while there are people dealing with drought issues around the country. If you took all of the food wasted across the world, that land used to grow the food would be the size of Canada,” Fincher said.
Another astonishing statistic is that the average household of four in the United States throws away $1,500 worth of food each year.
So what can we do to reduce food waste?
Making a list and sticking to it
Hoffer and Fincher both recommended simple meal planning and making a grocery list. “With meal planning, you really have to figure out how to be true to yourself,” Fincher said.
Some days people will want to eat out with friends and family and other days they’ll eat at home, so it’s figuring out what’s realistic.
Planning meals around ingredients you already have can also help, Fincher said. “Shop your own cupboards first. Once you have a list, check off what you already have, or make a note on what more you need to buy,” Hoffer said.
Ideally, people should stick to their grocery list, so they won’t be tempted to make an impulse purchase of a bargain deal or something on sale.
Another tip is to use a smaller shopping cart. “Trying out a hand cart can help control how much food you actually get,” Fincher explained.
It’s also key to buy produce that is loose and not prepackaged.
“A lot of the time, lettuce or other greens might come in three heads, but you may not need that much for the week. It makes a huge difference when you’re buying only what you need,” Hoffer said.
Hoffer added that a lot of ingredients, such as spices or nuts, can be cheaper in the bulk aisles of major grocery stores, so you can just buy what you need.
Hoffer also recommended shopping more at farmers markets, where the produce is fresher and can last a lot longer.
“Buying from farmers markets might cost more, but if it’s going to last longer, it might end up saving you money because you’ll have it for weeks, instead of a few days,” he said.
Many of the market vendors will accept EBT and food stamps, which may be a better option for low-income folks.
“We are buying a lot of food that we don’t even eat. Making better choices can save quite a bit of money,” Hoffer said.
Storing food properly to reduce waste
Food storage is also another way to prevent food from going bad fast.
Hoffer explained that there are actually differences between the refrigerator drawers labeled fruits and vegetables.
“Typically the fruit setting opens up venting in that drawer, so the gases will be distributed throughout the fridge instead of the drawer,” he said.
In the vegetable drawer, this closes off the venting, so the moisture is locked in for the vegetables to stay crisp. Being aware of what you’re putting in the drawers can help food last longer.
“Always use clear storage containers, so you can see inside. Sometimes, things get buried in the back, but if you place them in a particular spot every time, then you will remember,” he said.
Another tip is to dedicate a shelf in the fridge for food that should be eaten right away or soon.
“When people look for food in the fridge, you’ll know where to check for a snack or for a meal,” he said.
Storing herbs in a jar with a little bit of water can help them last weeks longer.
People might buy cilantro that comes in a produce bag. Leaving the clintro in the bag will cause it to get slimy and gross. The trick is to cut off the rubber bands or ties and put the cilantro in a jar of water, so the roots soak up water. If possible, loosely cover the jar with saran wrap or a lid.
Doing so will makes herbs last two to three weeks and will stay fresh. One exception is basil, you can store it on the counter in a jar of water.
Onions and potatoes should be kept out of the fridge. It’s also important to keep them separate because the onions will cause the potato to sprout faster.
When buying a big container of berries, hold off on washing them right away because as soon as you wash them, the wetness will cause molding. Take out a few each day to snack on and leave the rest unwashed.
Putting fruits like oranges, apples, and bananas together in a fruit bowl will make everything go bad faster, Fincher said.
Freezing what you can’t use immediately, like rice or bread, can also help reduce waste. Leftover bread can easily be frozen, cut into slices to pop in the toaster.
Expiration dates don’t mean much
Hoffer said that the United States Department of Agriculture does not review or approve these dates except for instant formula.
Manufacturers determine the dates as the “use by” date for best quality to inform stores to sell it by that date, but products stay good for several weeks. People also don’t realize that the expiration labels are tacked on by manufacturers. Because of this, 90 percent of people are throwing away food too soon, Fincher said.
Two websites can help you determine how long your food can last: eatbydate.com and stilltasty.com.
People should still be careful with meat and to use it within two days of buying it, Hoffer advised.
Larger impacts on society
Both Fincher and Hoffer agree that there are environmental, social, and financial impacts of wasting food.
“Food waste is rotting in landfills, emitting greenhouse gas emissions and methane gas.”
Hoffer said if all the land used to grow the food being wasted were a country, it would be the third largest in terms of greenhouse gas contributions, behind the United States and China.
Fincher said that surveys done by the City of Seattle showed that the senior and immigrant population don’t waste a lot of food.
“We’re looking to these populations for resources and skills to share with the younger generations in order to reduce food waste,” she said.
“All of the food wasted impacts people. It increases food costs using resources that are getting tossed, using scarce water resources. We have to think beyond ourselves because there are cities and populations that are suffering because of that,” she said.
Read part 1 — Composting: Why it’s important to get on board
Read part 2 — Composting in and around Seattle
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.